I didn’t bake anything last week. We were on holiday. I came home with the holiday blues and desperate for cake. I decided to give the technical bake from Victorian Week at the Great British Bake Off a try; a Victorian fruit cake decorated to look like a tennis court. The decoration may give me some problems, but hey, it was just a fruit cake covered with marzipan and sugarpaste. What could go wrong? Well, my marzipan hadn’t exactly gone to plan when I tried to make a Battenberg and neither had the last fruit cake I made. The marzipan had to be put out for the birds, and I had the oven too high for the fruit cake – oh, and I also cooked it for too long when my afternoon power nap didn’t quite work out.
I started the tennis court cake by making marzipan. After the Battenberg, I did successfully make marzipan using a recipe from Delia Smith’s Cakes. I decided to use it again and, on Monday afternoon, I sieved icing sugar and caster sugar into a bowl, mixed in an egg and whisked the mixture over a pan of simmering water as much as I could for ten minutes. In my case, this is usually ten second bursts with twenty seconds rest in between. Once the ten minutes was up, I took the bowl off the heat, put it into cold water and whisked in almond essence and brandy. When the mixture had cooled, I added ground almonds and kneaded it until I had a paste. I had quite a lot, much more than I thought I’d need, so I cut it in half, wrapped it in clingfilm and put one half in the fridge and one half in the freezer.
The next thing on the list was the sugarpaste. I made this on Wednesday. I couldn’t find a recipe in Mary Berry’s Baking Bible (BBC Food doesn’t publish the technical challenge recipe until the day after the Bake Off airs, so, although I knew it involved marzipan, sugarpaste and cake I wasn’t sure of the exact recipe). I found one in a book that I haven’t used before; The Contemporary Cake Decorating Bible by Lindy Smith. I’m very bad at decorations. It took me hours to make this Peppa Pig for my daughter’s birthday and it’s rubbish. Handbag cakes and high-heel cookies aren’t for me.
Lindy Smith’s recipe uses 1kg of icing sugar. I made a quarter of the recipe. I sprinkled powdered gelatine over some cold water. Once the mixture was spongy, I stirred it over a pan of hot water until the gelatine had dissolved. I’ve never cooked with gelatine before. It really smells. It has a musty, meaty savoury sort of smell that I’d never associate with cake. No wonder icing needs so much sugar. Anyway, I stirred in liquid glucose and glycerine and added this to my icing sugar. I’m not sure whether too much of my liquid glucose stuck to my measuring cup, whether my quantities were out, or whether I just didn’t have enough patience, but my mixture seemed much too dry. It wasn’t coming together as a paste at all. I put some cold water into it, which immediately made the mixture too wet, so I added more icing sugar, then some more, and then some more again until I, eventually, had a mixture I could knead. Once I had a smooth paste, I added food colouring and kneaded until the sugarpaste was evenly coloured and as green as Centre Court. I wrapped it in clingfilm and put it into the fridge.
On Thursday BBC Food published the recipe and I made the cake. The Bake Off contestants made a rectangular cake in some nifty adjustable cake tins. I don’t have any rectangular tins and I wasn’t going to buy one especially (I had an inkling that I wouldn’t be making a tennis court cake twice in my life). Luckily, the ingredients for the cake were the same as those for the Victorian Christmas cake recipe in Mary Berry’s Baking Bible which uses a 25cm round tin. I did have one of those.
I started by lining my tin with a double layer of greaseproof paper, then I prepared the fruit. I quartered glacé cherries, washed them and dried them thoroughly with kitchen paper so that they wouldn’t sink to the bottom of the cake (I know it was Victorian week, and, apparently, kitchen roll wasn’t invented until 1931, but if the Bake Off contestants weren’t sticking to the tools available to the Victorians – I definitely saw food mixers and electric ovens working overtime on Wednesday evening – neither was I). I drained a small tin of pineapple, cut the pineapple into chunks and dried them too. I chopped up some dried apricots and almonds and put them into a bowl with the cherries, pineapple, some lemon zest and sultanas.
For the cake batter, I mixed self-raising flour, caster sugar, softened butter, ground almonds and egg in the (non-Victorian) KitchenAid until it was smooth, and then folded in the fruit and nuts. I scraped the mixture into my tin and, in a first for me, I actually bothered to flatten the top – we were playing tennis and not crown green bowls after all. The cake went into the oven at 140° for two hours (the recipe in the Baking Bible gives a baking time of two and a quarter hours, but the BBC Food recipe says that two will be enough). My skewers came out clean after two, oh, and I covered the cake with foil after an hour of baking time so that the top wouldn’t be too dark. I left the cake to cool in the tin for half an hour, then turned it onto a wire rack and left it overnight.
I was pretty relaxed on Friday. All I had to do was put the cake together. I rolled out my marzipan. There wasn’t enough to cover the top of the cake. I got the second half of the batch out of the freezer and, wanting to get on with things, I put it into the microwave to defrost. This worked OK, but the marzipan did get a bit warm in places. I wasn’t going to make any more, so I rolled it out, cut it into a circle and lifted it onto the cake.
The BBC Food recipe assembles the topping for the cake on a silicon sheet. I’m not sure why I didn’t do this, but I put the marzipan and sugarpaste on separately. My sugarpaste was a bit stretchy once I’d rolled it out, but it flattened onto the cake quite nicely.
I started on the royal icing. The recipe uses one and a half pounds of icing sugar (that’s 675g – but if you say it in pounds it sounds more extravagant). This seemed a lot to me for piping around the edge of the cake, making a tennis court, a couple of rackets and a net. Perhaps BBC Food knew something I didn’t. Anyway, I whisked egg whites and added the icing sugar (sifted, of course) a tablespoon at a time until the mixture was very stiff.
The first thing to do with the royal icing was to pipe the tennis court lines onto the sugarpaste. The recipe says that you should do this with a number 3 writing nozzle. I have a piping syringe-type thing and my nozzles don’t have any numbers. In fact, only one of them seems to be suitable for writing, so I used this for everything expect for the piped borders. I piped my tennis court onto the cake, and a couple of rackets and the net onto some greaseproof paper. My tennis court lines were a bit on the wonky side. They wouldn’t have done for Mary, but were OK for me.
I coloured some of the icing pink, changed the piping nozzle to a star and piped a border around the edge of the cake. The Bake Off cake had two piped borders but, because my cake was round, I didn’t have the space for two. All that was left now was to wait for the net and rackets to dry and get them onto the cake.
Maybe my royal icing wasn’t stiff enough, maybe I didn’t leave things to set for long enough, maybe the use number 3 and 2 nozzles are critical in the piping of nets and rackets, but I could not peel the things off the paper to put onto the cake. I tried a couple more rackets but ended up piping them directly onto the cake. I had about six attempts at the net – so this was why the recipe had you making a bucket of royal icing. I tried thicker piping, different patterns with the netting to try and make it more robust, I even tried to make the net in smaller sections which, I thought, were less likely to break. It was no good.
In the end, to save my sanity and the weekend, we decided just to eat the cake.
The cake itself was really good; light, moist and really fruity, a hundred times better than my awful simnel cake. Jon said that the marzipan tasted a bit funny. I put that down to its time in the microwave. It also had a tendency to slide off the top of the cake when it was cut but, then again, the recipe didn’t use any apricot glaze or anything to stick it down so perhaps that isn’t surprising. I’ll definitely make the fruit cake again, but the vat of royal icing that’s left over is heading straight for the bin.